Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The end of an Era...

...with the closure of The Coleherne pub in Earl's Court.

The Coleherne used to vie with the Queen's Head in Chelsea as London's oldest gay pub. Gay men started frequenting the venue in the 1950s, and by the 1970s it was well known as a centre of gay life in London. Earl's Court became one of the best-known 'gay ghettoes', formed partly as a result of the post-war changes in housing, which saw the larger houses around Earl's Court broken up into flats. More well-heeled than Paddington, but cheaper than Chelsea, a distinctive community grew up here which found its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s.

At this time a committee had to be set up to try and improve relations between the patrons of the Coleherne and residents in the surrounding area, fed up of the areas in front of their homes being used as a cruising ground for gay men. The pub - a traditional venue, smoky and atmospheric, and popular with the leather-and-denim crowd - was sufficiently well known to feature in Armistead Maupin's book 'Babycakes', but rather less happily it was also one of the stalking grounds of serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Colin Ireland.

Earl's Court attracted a number of other gay venues during the 1980s and early 1990s: Copacabana, the Boltons, Graffiti, Bromptons and the eerily-named Catacombs. But times have changed: greater liberation and toleration means that gay men now live across London's suburbs, the desire to live side by side in a 'gay ghetto' now no longer a necessity, and the centre of exclusively gay bars has moved to Soho. The Coleherne itself began to suffer: an expensive makeover in the 1990s wasn't entirely successful, and robbed it of much of its character, and the loss of real ale made it less attractive to those who wanted a decent pint.

All Earl's Court's gay bars have now closed, including the Philbeach Hotel. The Coleherne was the last, and now it is gone, reopened in its new guise as The Pembroke, a straightforward, if fairly unremarkable gastro-pub. Only the Clone Zone shop (its parent company now in administration) and Balans, the gay-run restaurant chain, survive to indicate that once this was once a unique and colourful part of London...

Monday, 26 January 2009

Cambridge Winter Ales Festival - Review

Organised by the Cambridge and District Branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), this is a well established winter ales festival, with the emphasis is on the heavier, and generally darker (and stronger!) seasonal ales and “winter warmers”. However, with around 120 beers on offer, the festival has plenty of other beer styles too, as well as ciders and foreign beers - enough for even the most discerning palate.

I attended for the first time this year, and had a very enjoyable evening - once I got in, that is. The qualification is important, as one of the main features of the venue (Cambridge's University Social Club on Mill Lane) is that, for a beer festival, it's relatively small. There are two downstairs bars, the very small 'Back Bar' and the slightly larger 'Front Bar', where food is also served, and the main bar area upstairs. Entry is free for CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) members.

We arrived on the Friday at 7pm and had to queue for nearly an hour (that's real dedication for you) in a biting cold wind, as the venue was already full, and they could only let people in on a one-out, one-in basis. Unless they try for a larger venue next year, it's worth therefore getting there early: a friend of ours who arrived an hour earlier had no trouble queueing.

Once we'd warmed up, though, and purchased our £4 commemorative glasses (this is refundable if you don't want to keep it at the end of the evening), the beer choice was very good. The emphasis - and I suppose about half the ales - are of the heavier winter seasonal variety, including stouts and porters.

Some of these are pretty strong stuff: Bartram's 'Soviet Stout' comes in at 6.9% ABV, Cambridge Moonshine's 'Chocolate Orange Stout' comes in at 7.2%, Harwich Town's 'Sint Niklaas' at 7.8%, and Elveden's 'Harwich Charter Ale' at a whopping 10% ABV. Those trying the foreign beers have plenty of choice in the 8-10% range, with the Belgian Bush de Noël from Brasserie Dubuisson Frères brewery taking the ribbon with its staggering 12% ABV. (And you would be staggering, too, after one too many of those...).

Unsurprisingly, they only provide you with half-pint glasses. That all said, as with most beer festivals, people drink steadily and sensibly and the atmosphere is warm and friendly and very well behaved. There are plenty of beers in the 3.5-5% ABV range if you want something less alcoholic.

Some of the beers have wonderful names: Bartram's 'Mother In Law's Tongue Tied', a rich tawny ale (9% ABV) must rate as one of the best, Elgood's 'Wenceslas Winter Warmer' (7.5% ABV) wins the prize for alliteration, Potbelly's 'Jingle Bellies' (5% ABV) for the most humorous, Son of Sid's 'Strapped Jock' (4% ABV) for the most ribald and Woodforde's 'Headcracker' (7% ABV) for honesty!

Food is served until 9pm, although they carried on after this on our visit. The menu is pretty basic but filling festival fare: most popular, and best value, were the hearty and very fresh chips at £1.50, but there were also veggie chilli, game stew, fish and chips, various filled rolls and soup on offer.

Apart from the queue, the other main downers are that it is very crowded, there's no cloakroom to leave coats etc, there's no level access and relatively little seating for the numbers present. These are all limitations of the venue, but worth knowing about before you go if they're important for you.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Tourist shopping

I've never been one to go on holiday with the express view of shopping. In fact, shopping strikes me as the last thing I'd want to do when I'm abroad, when the prospect of visiting churches or museums, beaches or hill-walking country, or just sitting in a cafe watching the world go by, are the alternatives.

OK, so we've picked up the odd bit of pottery at markets when looking for the local 'colour' - difficult to avoid in North Africa, for example - and when in the USA I did buy a pair of cowboy boots - the sort of thing it's hard to get here, and which are particular to the place we visited. But the thought of going shopping for clothes or other items you can just as easily buy at home I find rather bewildering.

Clearly, however, I'm in a minority, if Oxford Street on Saturday was anything to go by. There seemed to be crowds of Dollar- and Euro-zone tourists on the tubes, buses and on the pavements, all shopping frantically while the pound is in such a miserably sorry state. Primark seemed to be a particularly popular destination judging by the crowds streaming in and out, as the normally very competitive clothes store had a sale on (as if it's possible to discount a £7 pair of jeans? Well, to £4, I suppose. At that rate the contents will soon be cheaper than the carrier bag you carry them out in).

I suspect this could become an interesting phenomenon this year: with no prospect of the pound recovering for some months, it may well be that London's retail sector is buoyed by the influx of visitors spending their hard earned cash here instead, while the locals stay at home. Why, it might even be worth sitting in a cafe in the West End, literally watching the rest of the world go by...

Monday, 19 January 2009

Tony Hart

And so, another icon of my childhood has passed away.

Tony Hart died over the weekend, at the age of 83. A pioneer of children's broadcasting, how you remember him will depend on your age and the television programmes you watched: for me, this will always be Vision On, where his quick-draw skills and often huge, bright and imaginative paintings inspired a whole generation to enjoy making art.

After Vision On, he starred in his own show, Take Hart. With his delightfully animated side-kick, Morph, this was aimed more directly at encouraging young people in creating art of their own. Less well known was the fact that he designed the original Blue Peter badge - another icon. His was a warm, gentle and yet highly creative form of television which, alongside that of Oliver Postgate (creator of the Clangers and Bagpuss), helped to define 1970s childrens' television.

Although Hart won two Baftas and a lifetime achievement award, as with Postgate, his work provides the most fitting memorial and tribute to his abilities.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

More Winter Ales and drinking tales

One of the things to look forward to on January's dull winter days (apart from Spring, that is), is the extraordinary wealth of beer festivals early in the year. Many of these specifically celebrate Winter Ales which, to the uninitiated, are the heavier, richer and usually sweeter brews which were traditionally brewed to help fend off the cold. These include specific brews produced only in Winter, as well as styles such as Porters which are naturally heavier. As well as providing extra calories, they are also packed with vitamins and minerals to help keep body and soul together.

I've already mentioned the Winter Ale Festival in Manchester which starts next Wednesday, but for those in London, the Cambridge Winter Ales Festival - which has actually been running longer - takes place next week too, and may be more accessible.

Once you've got back into the swing of beer festivals, then they come thick and fast in 2009, as the list of a 'A Year of Beer Festivals' on the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) website shows. Two close to my neck of the woods include the Battersea Beer Festival beginning on the 11th February, the Sussex Beer Festival at Hove in Sussex, on 12 March and a week later the 25th London Drinker Beer Festival at the Camden Centre in Bidborough Street, opposite St Pancras station.

But there are plenty of others to choose from around the country if any of these is not convenient. In addition to the large festivals organised by local CAMRA groups, there are also any number of smaller, pub-based festivals, with anything from 20 to 120 beers over a weekend.

So, as if you need an excuse, there'll be one close to you!

Friday, 16 January 2009

Choirs and weddings

We met some friends of ours the other night and, among other things, they mentioned that a friend was getting married in a well-known church in the city of London. Built by Sir Christopher Wren, the church has a grand and beautifully restored interior and is a fine setting for a wedding.

One of the parts of the service they had planned included a performance by a choir in which one of the family sings: a nice touch you'd have thought. However, apparently this is not allowed: the church has its own choir, and if anyone is going to sing (and get paid for it), it has to be them.

Now, I can see that, generally speaking, the church's own choir would be the normal choice, and even have first refusal. But in this case there's a special reason for making an exception, and it seems a little mean to me to operate what is effectively a closed shop on someone's special day. Not entirely in the Christian spirit, methinks...

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The 1911 census is online

Today is the day that many amateur genealogists have been waiting for with bated breath: the release of the the 1911 census data for England (those for Wales, as well as a few English counties, will follow later).

The 1911 census is interesting for all sorts of reasons. For starters, it was the first Census where individual household returns were preserved: previously, the records were destroyed once the transcripts had been completed. This means that you can see the returns in your ancestor's own handwriting - complete with mistakes and alterations, together with any comments the enumerator may have added later.

It also asked a number of questions about the life of the household: questions included asking how long the householders had been married, and how many children had been born to that union - including those that had died. It was also notable for a boycott by many suffragettes, angered that they were still being denied the vote, with the slogan "No Vote, No census".

Finally, it was compiled before the 1920 Act which prevented the census details from being released for 100 years, and the Government has bowed to pressure to release it earlier than the customary period. The early release, coupled with longer life expectancy, means that there are several thousand people mentioned on the Census who are still alive today - and for many, it will provide an insight into the lives of their parents and grandparents.

However, those looking for details the 1911 Census in Scotland will be disappointed, as the Data Protection laws there mean that the 100 year rule will apply, so those with Scottish ancestors will have to wait until 2011. There are also some areas where the records have been lost, so there will still be some frustrated searchers even in England.

The information is being hosted by the site findmypast.com, which means that the public will have to pay for the details, either for a transcript or (more) for a copy of the original. Hopes are high that the site will not repeat the problems of the launch of the 1901 census, which crashed its site after a matter of hours, due to the huge volume of people searching.

Happy hunting!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Freezing on the South Coast

Brrr. You come down from London to Brighton and expect it to be warmer than London. Normally it is: the South Downs shelter it from the worst of the weather from the North and especially the North East winds, and the coastal climate generally makes for milder days and nights too.

But not on Friday. The band of warm air descending, ironically, from the North, that ended the freeze elsewhere in the country had been held up somewhere in the Weald, so by the time my train reached Hayward's Heath, there were ominous signs of frost still hanging around in the late afternoon. Getting out at Brighton, it was distinctly frosty, and a quick check on the Met Office website revealed that it wasn't my imagination: the temperature - measured just down the coast in Shoreham - hadn't risen above freezing all day, and on Friday night fell to a really chilly -7.3C.

Interestingly, no-one seemed to have told a busy little squirrel any of that, who was up and early on Saturday doing whatever squirrels do. I thought they were supposed to hibernate, but apparently this is a common misunderstanding: both grey and red squirrels remain active throughout the winter, especially first thing in the morning when they have finished digesting their last meal and go looking for the next.

This one was certainly active on our garage roof, though quite what sort of food it thought it might have found there is anyone's guess. Still, it made for a more interesting and uplifting start to the day than listening to the latest grim news on the Credit crunch and from Gaza, both of which seem incapable of resolution at the moment.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Motorcycles in bus lanes

Great news - London Transport has decided to allow motorcycles in bus lanes for a trial period.

From 5 January 2009, an 18-month trial will allow motorcycles, mopeds, scooters and tricycles - but not those with sidecars - to travel in most red route bus lanes.

The only quibble that I can see is that it excludes borough bus lanes - ie those lanes introduced by individual boroughs. I can see this causing a certain amount of confusion - how are you to know whether you are in a participating bus lane or not? The website has detailed maps showing which lanes are included, but this is hardly helpful out on the road.

Still, as a motorcyclist, I think it's a step forward. As it's a trial, I hope bikers behave responsibly in using this new facility. And let's hope it reduces the number of casualties from accidents.

Pasta and plaster

My other half currently has a minor skin complaint that requires a fresh dressing every day, after showering.

The conversation went something like this:

"Could you put the pasta on?"

"But won't it get wet if I do it before you go in the shower?"

"What are you on about? Of course I won't take it into the shower"

"But you will if I put it on beforehand"

"No, I won't. Why would I take the pasta into the shower?"

Listen out for the penny dropping:

"Did you say pasta or plaster?"

You probably had to be there...

Castell de Castellet

Sometimes you go to a place that's simply nice.

It's not got the most imaginative name: the Castell at Castellet is rather like saying Castleton Castle in English. But it's a nice spot, with great views, all the same. Inevitably, the houses are all roaringly expensive and it has a stunningly posh restaurant, but wandering the few streets is free.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Worried about Wii

Among the plethora of adverts on TV this Christmas have been ones for Wii. Apart from its odd pronunciation (who paid the marketing gurus to come up with something otherwise used to describe urine?), for those not in the know it’s a computer concept which essentially turns your TV into a giant game screen, and has hand-held controls which take the place of bats, racquets, guns and so on, in the virtual world it sets before you.

The adverts show people – usually in front of a huge flat screen – playing tennis, having boxing matches and shooting aliens. Alongside the fairly obvious games is a social networking programme, which creates on-screen a garish, child-like virtual world populated by playful, doll-like characters, which the participants activate and cntrol like ‘real’ characters. These meet up, drink coffee, sit by the pool, even have parties.

My point in mentioning all of this – as if you hadn’t guessed – is to question whether it is a good thing. What Wii seems to deliver is a world where playing real games and engaging in real social interaction is replaced by the virtual equivalent - carried out from the comfort of your sofa.

The people depicted in the adverts are – of course - healthy, happy, and, above all, slim and attractive. Quite how they stay in tip-top, well balanced condition from the couch-potato comfort of their sofas is not revealed. I can see the benefits of this technology for people who genuinely find difficulty in doing such things – for example, because they have a disability which makes engaging in real sport prohibitively difficult. But for most, it strikes me as yet another force towards taking less exercise and substituting for developing real social skills.

More bizarrely, I do not understand the attraction of such virtual socialising. What is the point of a virtual party? Proponents might argue that it enables you to meet ‘friends’ from across the world in a way which would otherwise be impossible in real life. But these cannot be real relationships in any meaningful sense of the word. It seems to pander instead to a fear of forming deeper, more tangible but inevitably more complex relationships.

In the end, the real attraction of such technology – like most technology – is that it is convenient and easy. Virtual boxing doesn’t involve a trip to the gym, the need to take a shower, and is considerably less likely to result in a broken nose or cauliflower ear. On-line ‘friends’ are made with considerably less effort - and concomitantly less commitment- than the real thing.

But it could also be the first step towards a society like that depicted in Pixar’s charming cartoon Wall-E – where humans are reduced to immobile blobs floating on hover-beds, talking only into their screens, seduced every few minutes by the latest marketing fads. It’s enough to make this screen-bound writer go out jogging. In fact, I think I will.

'See you' next week...

Christmas Decoration Etiquette

What is the correct etiquette for putting up and taking down Christmas decorations?

I ask this because every year, Brighton City Council erects a small compound on Montpelier Crescent for discarded Christmas trees. These it processes into compost and mulch for its municipal gardens, an admirable example of recycling on our behalf (not quite as admirable as not buying the trees in the first place, perhaps, but we’ll leave that debate for another day).

What interests me is that the compound is erected on Christmas Eve, ready for the first trees on Boxing Day. And, sure enough, on Boxing Day afternoon the first trees appeared. Now, I was brought up on the notion that there were twelve days of Christmas, and that decorations should not be taken down until Twelfth Night (the night of 5th January). Other traditions hold that they should not be taken down until after Twelfth Night (ie on the 6th January) and others that they must not stay up beyond 6th January.

What all these have in common is the ancient notion that Christmas begins on Christmas Day and finishes twelve days later. I realise that few people actually put up their decorations as late as Christmas Eve, although this year I did (more because I didn’t get around to it earlier than adherence to Advent, if I’m honest).

Some churches also abide by this, erecting only a crib scene (minus the baby Jesus, of course) during Advent – a time, like Lent, that is supposed to be a period of fasting, reflection and repentance. But the pressures to begin early are hard to resist.

The modern preparations for Christmas begin the process weeks, if not months, in advance. Advent has disappeared as a season outside the church (even Advent Calendars depict presents, chocolates and other Christmassy items), and at least one national newspaper laments the fact that Christmas cards are on sale in one shop or another, some time around August.

But that doesn’t explain the hurry to get the whole thing over and done with, with rather indecent haste. Why ditch the tree the day after? It’s still a holiday; there’s still a Christmassy feel around (plenty on the telly, certainly); and there’s another holiday just 7 days later. It’s as if they’ve got fed up with the thing and can’t wait to return to normal, and hoover up all the dropped pine needles. Perhaps we need a campaign to reinstate the twelve days of Christmas?

A Catalan New Year

So here we are, having swopped the dry and freezing New Year in the UK for a milder but damper one in Barcelona.

Coming to Catalonia, like most parts of Spain, always requires a bit more of an adjustment than most other European destinations, particularly when it comes to your body clock. The one hour time difference is more than compounded by the siesta and the habit of eating and drinking late - very, very late. Most establishments don’t open before 9pm, and remain eerily quiet until 10.30pm. But on New Year’s Eve, the bars stay resolutely closed until 1am, to allow the staff to see in the New Year at home before continuing their celebrations in a more public space.

The Spanish New Year seem to have two main aspects. The first of these is eating grapes: twelve grapes, to be exact. These are quaffed, one at a time, to the chimes of the clock in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, broadcast on every TV and radio channel. It’s quite a challenge: the chimes come quite quickly, and Spanish grapes have pips so, unless you have already de-seeded them, or bought the expensive little tins of pre-prepared grapes, you’re going to have to spit pretty quickly too. Inevitably, people end up giggling with mouths dribbling full of grapes they can’t quite stuff in fast enough.

The second element is Spanish television. In recent years, this has improved, in ways which any Brit over 40 can understand: the cheesy celebrities of yesteryear (think Val Doonican, only Spanish, and worse), have largely bitten the dust - some of them literally so, I suspect. Instead, there’s a more mixed entertainment of music, comedy and reviews of the past year. As you wend your way to a bar, you can hear a medley of different channels wafting from each balcony.

Feliz Año Neuvo!